Of all the figures in the New Testament, the circumstances of the present-day Christian are closest to John the Baptist.
No, not in terms of lifestyle. John the Baptist lived like a wild animal, feeding on locusts and honey and lurking in the desert. But, as one whose entire life was devoted to preparing the way for Christ, he shows us how to live our faith as we look forward to the second coming. We are particularly called to do this during Advent—and John the Baptist is uniquely suited to help us do it.
Below are three ways this saint and martyr set an example for us today.
A voice crying out in the wilderness. John the Baptist is identified in Isaiah 40:3 and all four gospels as the ‘voice of one crying out in the wilderness.’ Isn’t this where we find ourselves today? The world so often seems morally and spiritually desolate, parched of truth and the virtues. And, like John the Baptist, we too should cry out. We should cry out for Christ. We should cry out to the world, announcing the second coming of Christ.
Notice John’s words in Matthew 3:2. He says the kingdom of heaven is “at hand” or “near,” as many translations read. Now there are two senses in which something can be “near.” An approaching army may be near in the sense that it will soon arrive. But something can also be near in a spatial sense—like the computer or iPad screen on which you are reading this article is near your eyes.
The kingdom of heaven is near in both senses. Christ will come again in glory. But He is also near to us now—present fully in the Eucharist and mystically in the Church. This adds urgency to our proclamation of the gospel. Think about it in terms of a military invasion. It is one thing to say an invasion is imminent. But this news gains added gravity and urgency when the invading army has already landed and its leading general has established a beachhead nearby. The Church is heaven’s beachhead on earth. This is the message we must cry out to the world.
He must increase, I must decrease. These words from John 3:30 are John the Baptist’s famous statement of humility. This virtue is especially commendable in someone like John, who was uniquely chosen to be the personal forerunner of Christ. John had this privileged mission and yet he did not even consider himself worthy to untie Christ’s sandals. In the City of God, St. Augustine wrote that the humility is the way to heaven. John the Baptist humbled himself such that heaven came to him.
Witness to the light. There is so much packed into the beginning of John’s gospel that his statement about the role of John the Baptist probably doesn’t get the attention it deserves. The gospel writer’s soaring meditation on the Word, creation, and Incarnation unfolds over the first 18 verses. Right in the middle of it all is John the Baptist. He is described this way: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him” (Douay-Rheims, verses 6 to 7).
Notably, the word testify is martureó in the Greek. It could also be translated as witness. One of its noun forms is martys, from which we get our word martyr. As a ‘witness’ John indeed was called to go all the way to true martyrdom.
But what does it mean to ‘witness to the light’? The light here of course is Christ, the Word, the rational principle behind all living things, the light of our faith. So how could John the Baptist—and we following his example—be witnesses to such light?
The question actually answers itself. The whole point of the above verses is that a man could even be a witness to the divine light. Follow again the cadence of the first verses. John begins in the beginning of all created things, the earth and the heavens, the entire cosmos. He is contemplating the divine life that is the source of this creation, God and His Word—distinct yet both God. The Word is life and the light is the light of men.
Then we come to the sixth verse: “There was a man…”
We seem to have suddenly shifted down from the lofty heights of metaphysics to the mundane. But man is not a mere afterthought here. This man has a role to play in this cosmic drama: his purpose is to witness to the light itself. One preacher well captures the significance in his comment on this verse:
It didn’t have to be this way. God could have caused the light of Christ to spread in some other way. He could have done it with angels. He could have written the gospel in the sky with big puffy white letters made out of clouds. He could have caused the wind to talk. But instead God chose to call and send human beings to bear witness to the light.
May we all follow the example of John the Baptist in this Advent season—and beyond—in being witnesses to the light.